RUNNING UP THE SCORES

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The scene from Psycho is a grisly shudder in the collective unconscious, as bracing as Janet Leigh's famous shower and possibly even more shocking. The detective, played by Martin Balsam, is climbing the stairway of Norman Bates' creepy old house, his cautious tread accompanied by a few high-pitched notes in the violins, pregnant with mystery and menace. As he reaches the landing, a door flies open in a glint of flashing steel: suddenly the strings shriek rhythmically, as the knife blade slashes down and the stricken cop topples backward to his death in a symphony of pizzicato cellos and basses. We not only see his death; we hear it as well.

Many things go into the making of a movie classic, but Alfred Hitchcock's timeless thriller is inseparable in our memory from Bernard Hermann's eldritch, bump-in-the-night score. Through out the Golden Age of Hollywood, the music of composers like Hermann, Erich Korngold, Max Steiner, Miklos Rozsa, Alfred Newman and others was an integral--and often unforgettable--part of the motion-picture experience. What is Gone With the Wind without Steiner's haunting Tara's Theme, or Lawrence of Arabia without Maurice Jarre's heroic, expansive opening music? Why can't they write them like that anymore?

Well, they do. The venerable art of movie scoring may have been obscured of late by a new kind of sound track--the so-called compilation score, cobbled-together collections of rock songs (some containing new songs, others merely groups of oldies). They're a smart example of marketing synergy: the movie helps sell the album; the album helps sell the movie. And it's working: the sound tracks for Batman Forever (with a hit single by U2) and Dangerous Minds (with one by rapper Coolio) have been among the summer's best sellers.

Yet a sequel to the Golden Age of movie music is upon us, and it can't be found on the Billboard charts. Not since the heyday of Steiner and Hermann have there been as many brilliant young composers working in movies. Consider these recent offerings: James Horner's glorious, Celtic-twilight-tinged music for Braveheart, along with his otherworldly harmonies for Apollo 13; Elliot Goldenthal's dashing romp through Batman Forever; Michael Kamen's lounge-lizard gloss on the great Latin lover Don Juan de Marco; and James Newton Howard's swashbuckling music for the otherwise waterlogged epic Waterworld. Together with the idiosyncratic Danny Elfman (Batman, Pee Wee's Big Adventure) and the rhapsodic Trevor Jones (The Last of the Mohicans, Cliffhanger), not to mention such still active veterans as Jerry Goldsmith (Basic Instinct), Ennio Morricone (Wolf) and, foremost among them, John Williams, whose 1977 score for Star Wars single-handedly revived the Technicolor genre, they form the core of Hollywood's new musical A-list.

Now, as then, movie music is firmly in the romantic tradition. In accepting the 1954 Academy Award for his score for The High and the Mighty, Dimitri Tiomkin thanked "all those who helped me win this award--Johannes Brahms, Richard Strauss, Beethoven and Tchaikovsky." What sets the new composers apart, though, is their ability to combine disparate influences in the same score, drawing equally on rock, jazz, classical and folk influences. In Braveheart, for example, Horner melds the lonely sound of the Irish uillean pipes and the Peruvian flute with a modern symphony orchestra to portray Mel Gibson's doomed hero.

Part art, part artifice, a great movie score can give a picture an operatic, larger-than-life quality that elevates both the senses and the emotions, while working primarily on the level of the subconscious. The relatively anonymous film composers are some of the best--and longest-suffering--talents in the music business, subject to the vagaries of whimsical producers, ham-fisted editors and tone-deaf directors. "It's a brutal business," says Kamen, 45. "They don't care about your musical ambitions, or even if the oboe is in tune. They care whether the music is delivered on time and on budget."

Yet film composers are used to being overlooked. "Ideally, the music shouldn't be noticed at all," says Horner, 42, the British-trained composer who now commands nearly half a million dollars per score. "It should just manipulate the hell out of an audience. Music shoves the emotions around, and it has to be done skillfully and elegantly." Audiences may not notice that the music is there--but they will surely notice if it's not. A delirium-tremens scene in Billy Wilder's 1945 drama, The Lost Weekend, elicited titters from early viewers until Rozsa added music, transforming the scene from risible to shocking (and helping Wilder and star Ray Milland win Oscars in the process).

The lack of widespread appreciation doesn't mean film composers don't take their work as seriously as do concert-music composers. "In the academic world, writing in Hollywood still has a little stigma to it," says Williams. "But the fact that you can't take film music out on the concert stage and stand on its own is not derogatory. It speaks to its function, which is to be part of a tapestry." Like Williams, most of the younger composers are classically trained. Indeed, the movies have a rich tradition of "classical" composers turning to film scores: not only Korngold, the erstwhile Viennese opera composer , but Americans like Aaron Copland (The Red Pony), Virgil Thomson (The Plow That Broke the Plains), Leonard Bernstein (On the Waterfront) and, most recently, Philip Glass (Candyman). "There's a tremendous amount of snobbery connected to film music," says Goldenthal, 41, the composer of an oratorio commemorating the end of the Vietnam War, Fire Water Paper, which had its premiere in Southern California last April. "But it's a very healthy way for a serious orchestral composer to earn a living or for a serious theater composer to learn the craft."

Goldenthal, a New York City native who studied at the Manhattan School of Music under Copland and John Corigliano (who wrote the opera The Ghosts of Versailles as well as the score for Altered States), got a quick lesson in craftsmanship last summer, when director Neil Jordan abruptly discarded George Fenton's score for Interview with the Vampire and commissioned Goldenthal to write a new one. The composer remembers getting a call from Jordan while trying to get over the flu after finishing the score on Cobb: "Neil asked, 'Can you do it? It's due in August.' And I said, 'Great, give me a call in about six months.' And he said, 'No, this August.' I had 3 1/2 weeks. The freak-out is when you haven't composed a note of music and you see your name on the posters."

The problem with Fenton's score, Goldenthal found, was that it mirrored the tempo of the movie: slow, almost turgid. Like Elmer Bernstein, who enlivened the ponderous exodus of the Israelites in Cecil B. DeMille's The 10 Commandments with quick, sprightly march music, Goldenthal sought to spice up Jordan's dour vision of vampirism with a sprinkle of harpsichord here, a dash of rock there. "The performances were very slow and metered," he says. "Brad Pitt's delivery was whispery. What the music needed was horseplay, fire; I took any chance I had to get quick music in there to get people's blood moving."

Most composers don't start working seriously on a score until they see a rough cut of the finished film. In the early stages, says Horner, he may work on themes and instrumentation, but "I can't really start weaving the quilt until the film is locked, since I'm writing to sequences of fixed footage and length. In Braveheart I wanted to help the feeling of the fellow being a hero and a martyr. Most people would have scored his execution differently. I chose to score it softly, with strings and a boys' choir. To me that was the color of his sacrifice."

The master of the memorable musical motif and the splash of orchestral color remains Williams, 63. From the ominous, if oft-parodied, "dum-dum, dum-dum" tune for the shark in Jaws (itself an homage to a theme from Hermann's Psycho) to the soaring melody of the mother ship in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Williams has a knack for creating the perfect musical counterpoint to the fantastic images on screen. "We all look up to him," says Kamen. "He invigorated the idea that the orchestra is the way to go when making film scores. He emphasizes the tonal possibilities, the excitement of a hundred people playing music."

"Movie scores have changed very little over the years," notes Williams. "The fundamental grammar comes from operatic incidental music of the 19th century. That is still the accepted language of the popular film era." Yet Williams speaks fervently about what he sees as an evolving art form." In a hundred years we could be dazzled by what is done by electronic sound. Music and film is just starting, but it will be the entertainment medium of the next centuries."

Though many of the younger composers, such as Goldenthal and James Newton Howard, use synthesizers and mixing boards to try out their music before they put it in front of an orchestra, nearly all the composers reject the voguish use of fully synthesized scores. "The orchestra," says Trevor Jones, "has a limited sound palette, synthesizers a vast one. But a synthesizer score sounds old very rapidly. Orchestral scoring is what you use for a long shelf life."

The advent of rock-compilation sound tracks is perhaps a more serious threat to the film composer's art. Increasingly, composers are finding themselves shouldered aside, as studios and record companies insert rock songs wherever possible, with an eye to creating a best-selling album. "A lot of directors lately are using a crowbar to stick songs in a movie where they clearly don't belong," complains agent Richard Kraft, who represents a number of composers.

In self-defense some composers simply write their own hits. Michael Kamen, a Juilliard-trained oboist, founder of the New York Rock & Roll Ensemble and composer for Alvin Ailey and the Joffrey Ballet, wrote the music for the No. 1 songs All for Love from The Three Musketeers and Everything I Do from Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, both sung by Bryan Adams. Kamen recalls that he had to fight to get his sinuous, elegant main theme into the movie Don Juan de Marco. "The director [Jeremy Leven] hated the tune," he recalls. Yet when Bryan Adams lent his vocals, it became Have You Ever Really Loved a Woman?--and another No. 1 hit. "The theme was right: that's what you can hang your hat on."

Well, at least a No. 1 hit is one way for a movie composer to get attention. Still, it's an uphill struggle. "We composers are at least as significant as the stars who make $14 million or $15 million," contends Kamen. "We are actors on the screen. You just don't see us." But you can hear them: next time you go to the movies, listen.